There was a time when being from Brooklyn meant getting heckled for hailing from the wrong part town. But in the past few years, the city that got no respect has become the gotta-see place on a visit to New York. It’s considered so cool that Brooklyn has ranked among the top 50 names for baby girls in recent years.
The sudden surge of interest has even shocked the locals, like the cabbie who was taking me to the newly opened 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. He grew up near the once- gritty Flatbush Avenue and has seen his hometown transform in the past 10 years.
The changes have mostly been for the good, he said. Places that used to be run down are getting a new sparkle; second hand stores are out and organic cafes are in. But there has been a downside: a surge of people moving from ridiculously pricey and crowded Manhattan to the low-rise neighborhoods here has driven prices skyward.
But for a visitor, Brooklyn’s a fascinating time warp between the old and the new. Entire neighborhoods retain that Sidewalks of Old New York feel. Pedestrians and bikes are better ways to get around than cars. After a voyage on Celebrity Cruises that ended in New Jersey’s Cape Liberty, it was a perfect opportunity to spend a couple of extra days discovering the place where my father grew up.
1) Hotel with an unforgettable view
You can’t buy the Brooklyn Bridge, but you can own an exceptional view of it from a suite at the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. The entire middle section of a window wall slides open, providing a breath-taking panorama of the iconic span, with the skyline of Lower Manhattan beyond.
The hotel that opened in February, 2017, represents a fusion of all the trends that are reviving Brooklyn. The building itself is a conversion of a former warehouse along what was a wharf on the East River. The former port is today a verdant park and the only active pier is near the bridge and it’s the starting point for many of the city’s guided boat tours.
As souvenir T-shirts on sale in the lobby suggest, the 1 Hotel aims to be 100 percent natural. The building has been fitted out with floors and closets built of reclaimed wood. There’s a rock garden in the bathroom and a tap featuring triple filtered tap water eliminates the need for bottled water. The soaps are organic and even the clothes hangers are made from recycled wrapping paper.
The lobby is a garden of hanging plants and the furnishings are eclectic, including tables made from reused roof beams and polished stone. The café sells organic snacks and the hotel’s complimentary shuttle around the neighborhood is a shiny Tesla SUV.
2) Getting to know DUMBO
The neighborhood surrounding the hotel is curiously called DUMBO, an acronym for Downtown Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. The old manufacturing warehouses are well preserved, but now are mostly loft apartments and office space. It’s an easy-going and arty community, where the streets are still paved with cobblestones and where the shops include art collectives and independent galleries and used bookstores. There’s even a store specializing exclusively in poetry.
From here, you can take the stairs at Washington Street to the walkway across the Brooklyn Bridge, which is bustling all day with pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s free to walk across and the views of lower Manhattan from the middle of the bridge are spectacular.
3) Hitting Brooklyn’s Heights
Heading away from the Bridge into Brooklyn, the scene becomes more residential as you get into Brooklyn Heights, which claims to be “America’s first suburb.” (In the 1890s Brooklyn grew to became the third-largest city in America–behind Manhattan at the other edge of the bridge.) The Heights is a wonderful collection of brownstone rows originally built in the nineteenth century as mansions for Wall Street bankers, many featuring imposing staircases trimmed in cast iron or carved stone. There’s a lot of restoration going on to bring these homes back to their original splendor.
On the main streets like Henry and Clark, there are still a lot of scenes that haven’t changed much in more than a century. Flower and grocery stores display their wares on the streets and cafes with tables at the windows reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings.
4) You can take the A train
You’ll probably want to get in to Manhattan for shopping or sightseeing while you’re so close. It can be a lot cheaper and quicker to take the subway than it would be taking a cab through New York’s continual gridlock.
The A Train, made famous in the swing tune by Duke Ellington’s band, is an easy walk from the hotel to the Brooklyn Bridge Station on Fulton Street. It makes the stops you’ll likely want to make, including Pennsylvania Station, Times Square, Central Park and Harlem. When I was there, though, the famous line was out of service because a train had derailed, (the New York infrastructure is unfortunately in need of a lot of maintenance).
An alternative is to take the Number 3 Train from the Clark Street Station two blocks away. The train makes similar stops to the A train, but also does a stop at Wall Street that the A train doesn’t include.
5) On the menu
If you’re hungry, it’s time to check out one of DUMBO’s more remarkable phenomena, the ongoing competition to be the number one pizzeria. On one block, three shops have eager patrons standing outside to get in to get a table. And you’ve got order a whole pie—no slices sold.
The most famous is Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, which take cash only and is in such demand it has a velvet rope that snakes around the corner. Patrons are willing to wait an hour or more to score a table.
Another famous spot along the shore is the River Cafe, featured in several movies including Terms of Endearment as well as The Sopranos TV series. It’s a floating-barge dining room that offers high-end dining with stunning evening views of Manhattan. And for dessert, right on the pier, is the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory that’s in what used to be the fireboat station on the waterfront.
There’s a lot more to Brooklyn that I didn’t have time to explore: like a world-class museum, a fascinating new arena where the Nets play basketball, the vast Prospect Park and of course Coney Island, the amusement park that inspired generations of roller coasters. So yes, I’ll take Manhattan, but on my next visit to New York, Brooklyn will be beckoning me to return.